After enemy forces stormed the city, U.S. Marines were dispatched to relieve a besieged American base.
When the shooting started at 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, during the Tet celebration of the Lunar New Year, U.S. Army radioman Frank Doezema was on guard duty in the northwest tower of the Hue compound that housed Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, a Saigon-based organization that directed American combat forces in the country. Below was Duy Tan Street—the stretch of Highway 1 that passed through the city. To the north on a clear night you could see past the white walls of the two-story Hue University to the Huong River, the Truong Tien Bridge, and across the water the Citadel, a walled fortress that was once the seat of a Vietnamese empire.
Doezema saw North Vietnamese Army soldiers moving in the streets below, hundreds of them. When they advanced with rifles and rocket tubes, Doezema raked them with an ear-shattering blast of his machine gun. Those who did not fall dragged the others back. A few minutes later they came again, he raked them once more, and once more he drove them back.
The shooting shocked the sleepy compound awake. Some of the roughly 400 men staying there were combat veterans, but most were not. The compound was considered a rear post, a transit stopover for the U.S. Army and Marine officers attached to South Vietnamese troops in the 1st Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. It was manned mostly by office workers, cooks, drivers, supply officers and the staff of Army Col. George Adkisson, who had taken command only days earlier.
Men scrambled to their assigned positions. Adkisson stepped out of his quarters, having quickly dressed. Two mortars exploded overhead against a roof, and moments later two more struck in the courtyard. One ignited the gas tank of a jeep, which became a ball of bright orange flame. Adkisson’s first thought was that the soccer stadium across the street must be under attack and they were being struck by errant fire.
The roof had literally fallen in on Marine Maj. Frank Breth, who crawled to his shower stall, clutching his rifle. A second blast sent down shattered ceiling tiles that opened a cut on his forehead. Partly buried and bleeding, Breth panicked for a moment until he realized he had not been badly hurt.
Pulling himself out of the debris, he went into the courtyard, where he met Marine Capt. Jim Coolican. Both raced to inspect the perimeter, making sure all the defensive positions were manned and supplied with ammo. If another attack was coming, these were critical minutes. Periodically, Doezema cut loose a stream of fire from his tower. Both towers were manned, but the threat seemed to be coming only from the front. If the enemy came from several directions at once, the post could be easily overrun. It sounded as if all of Hue was under attack.
Doezema opened fire again. He was working hard when a rocket exploded against the tower’s roof. His gun went silent. Coolican ran to the tower and climbed up the narrow platform to reman the position. The grenade had sent shards of tin slashing down on Doezema. The Marine captain found his friend badly sliced and bleeding heavily. One leg was nearly severed.
Breth made his way up to the roof of the main building on the north side. Below he could see enemy soldiers all over the streets a block away and started squeezing off shots at them with his rifle. Guards in the bunker outside the main gate were shooting. They had plenty of targets. As Breth watched, too distant to shout a warning, one determined enemy soldier crossed the street, crept up behind the bunker and dropped a grenade inside. The explosion silenced the bunker’s guns. Breth started firing on automatic and threw down several grenades. All around them there was shooting, explosions, flares and the screams of the wounded.
After the flurry of initial attacks, the enemy seemed to have backed off. The Americans knew it couldn’t last—but it did. It amazed Coolican, who could see how vulnerable they were. But he took advantage of the lull to turn the tower over to others and climbed back down to raise the command center at Phu Bai on the radio. For the time being, he said, the compound was secure. They needed help, but there was no immediate crisis.
Coolican didn’t know what was going on beyond the immediate neighborhood, but there had been a lot of shooting. Some of the Americans scattered around the city had called in, desperate for help. If there were that many NVA and Viet Cong out there, where were they? Why were they not hitting the compound harder? It was the only American base of any consequence in the city.
The truth is that an overextended NVA battalion that had occupied “the triangle”—an area of major government offices and schools—with such ease didn’t dare. There were too few men to launch a major assault on the compound. The whole point of the city invasion was to spark a citizen uprising. If that happened, what hope would these surrounded Americans have?
“Something is going on,” said the Marine who awakened Gordon Batcheller at Phu Bai. Batcheller dressed quickly in the dark. A Marine captain, he had recently assumed command of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. In a few days, his men would be driving up the road into Hue to guard the Navy’s busy boat ramp. The early-morning attacks short-circuited that plan. Explosions at the Tam Thai tank base, 2 miles south of Hue, got everyone’s attention, and there were reports of fighting all over the country. The first in their area arrived about the same time mortar rounds started crashing inside the base. The reports kept coming. Bad things were happening in the city itself.
The aptly named Brig. Gen. Foster LaHue had only weeks earlier taken over at the base at Phu Bai. He had been installed as commander of Task Force X-Ray, a newly created effort that combined the 1st and 5th Marine regiments to muscle up the American military presence in the northernmost provinces. Task Force X-Ray was far from a well-oiled war-fighting machine. When trouble came that morning, the general had only a sketchy notion of what was going on, but he was determined and confident he could regain the initiative with whatever forces were at hand.
Batcheller received an order to “saddle up” his company on trucks, pronto, and head south. An ARVN unit on the way to Da Nang needed help. Pvt. John Ligato hadn’t even had time to dry his socks. He had been walking around with wet feet for days, so as soon as he got to a hootch he had taken off his boots, washed and wrung out his socks, and hung them up to dry. He was told he’d be back by noon, so he left them.
They rolled out in darkness, a convoy of flatbed trucks filled with tired, disgruntled men, led and followed by two Army Dusters: light armored vehicles with twin 40 mm guns that could fire hundreds of high-explosive rounds per minute. They also had two Army M45 Quadmounts—the Marines called them Quad 50s—a standard 2½-ton cargo truck with four .50-caliber machine guns on a steel turret that could rotate a full circle and fire an astonishing 1,800 rounds per minute. The men rode in “six-by-sixes,” rugged six-wheel drive trucks painted with green and brown splotches of camouflage, with a flat metal bed and removable wooden slats on both sides that offered little protection; the slats were there mostly to keep loads from rolling or bouncing off.
They rode for two hours in wet, cold darkness and then stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was no sign of the needy ARVN unit. Batcheller’s commanders in Phu Bai told him to turn around and head in the opposite direction, back through the base and up Highway 1 through Hue to a point farther north, where they were to link up with an Army unit.
Lance Cpl. Mike Anderegg was farther up Highway 1. He was driving a Patton flame tank, a Zippo, which instead of a 90 mm gun mounted on the front had a powerful flamethrower. With him were another Zippo and two gun-mounted Pattons. They were on their way to the boat ramp in Hue, where they were supposed to be loaded onto boats and shipped north.
But as the tanks approached the southern tip of the triangle, they came upon the column of incinerated ARVN tanks just outside Tam Thai. A Marine embarkation officer, Lt. Col. Ed LaMontagne, who had hitched a ride with them, was in charge by default. He didn’t like the look of those destroyed tanks and had about decided to return to Phu Bai when Batcheller’s convoy rolled up. The officers consulted with LaHue’s command center. They were to proceed to the MACV compound, which was under siege. They started north again, more cautiously now.
Batcheller stood behind the turret on one of the tanks. He saw what appeared to be enemy soldiers in the distance moving parallel to the road. Tanks were vulnerable unless surrounded by infantry to prevent attackers from getting too close, so he ordered his men off the trucks. In the gray drizzle, lines of helmeted men in flak jackets and dirty green fatigues began walking alongside, behind and in front of the tanks. The captain swiftly changed his mind when several of them were hit by sniper fire. In the vehicles, they could move faster. So they reboarded the trucks. The convoy sped up.
A short distance ahead was the An Cuu Bridge. It had big holes in it from the satchel charges that had failed to bring it down. The Marines drove across warily, and a short distance farther, in the city now, they approached a cluster of two-story houses close to the road on both sides. They advanced toward a big traffic circle. Arrayed around the circle were six ARVN tanks and an armored personnel carrier, remnants of the stray ARVN column. All of them were empty, and most were badly damaged.
They were still in the traffic circle when shooting started from all sides. A man walking behind Batcheller fell, clutching his leg. Then came another burst of fire, killing the wounded man and knocking the captain off his feet. He tumbled from the impact and came to rest at the base of the tree, tangled in a coil of barbed wire. He had been hit with three rounds in his right arm and leg. A bullet had gone straight through the leg, breaking his femur and leaving a great open gash. Tangled in the wire, he could not move. He shouted to his men to stay clear.
Batcheller bellowed to his gunnery sergeant, John Canley, that Canley was now in command. Most of the shooting was coming from the houses in the field, but there were muzzle flashes in the rice paddies on either side too. The Dusters and Quad 50s were blasting away, but there were too many targets. The men of the 3rd Platoon were all flattened to the ground. Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez, a wiry Texas sergeant, their acting platoon leader, stood beside a tree looking down at them. He signaled that they were going to charge.
The houses sheltering the enemy were to their left. Gonzalez was not going to charge straight at them; he wanted his men to get to the ditch on the far side of the road and sprint north until they were outside the sweep of the machine guns. Then they could reach the houses’ north flank by running across the field. It seemed suicidal. But on Gonzalez’s count of three, the men got up and started running. Despite the losses of some men, fire from the Quad 50s and the Dusters enabled most of Gonzalez’s platoon to get across the field and around to the side of the houses. The sergeant was the first to enter the closest structure, and his squad must have taken the gunners inside by surprise because he emerged with an armful of rifles and a big grin on his face.
More than half of Alpha Company was dead or wounded. Then came help. From behind, in a jeep, came Lt. Col. Marcus Gravel, their battalion commander, with his operations officer, Maj. Walter Murphy; and a Catholic Navy chaplain, Richard Lyons. Behind them was a long convoy of trucks. Gravel had thrown it together and headed north after hearing still more alarming reports from Hue.
Capt. Chuck Meadows’ Golf Company was not part of Gravel’s command, but it was available. Gravel said, “Chuck, I want you to get your company on these trucks.” He gestured to the empty trucks lined up outside. “We are going up to Hue. We’ll be back by this afternoon.”
Meadows told his men to travel light. Soon out of the gate he noticed something fishy. There were no people moving on Highway 1. Ordinarily during Tet the road by that time of morning was busy with people on bikes or walking. Then they came across the burned-out ARVN tanks. Farther up there was blood on the road and bodies on the street where Batcheller’s convoy had been.
They came to an abrupt halt when they caught up to Alpha Company under fire, stalled on the exposed road. Gravel’s jeep skidded crosswise, and everyone dived for cover. The crack and pop of gunfire were everywhere. The Dusters and Quad 50s were still roaring. There were dead and wounded scattered about.
When Lyons saw Batcheller, curled up and tangled at the base of a tree, badly wounded, he forgot his spiritual mission and lifted a discarded rifle. He began crawling toward the wounded captain, firing on automatic into the opposite rice paddy. Batcheller waved him back.
Gravel sent his driver back for the jeep and told him to move it alongside the downed captain, enabling four Marines to reach him. Navy hospital corpsman Michael Ker and Ligato, the Marine who’d left his socks behind, and two others knelt alongside the big captain, freed him from the wire’s barbs and eased him onto a poncho. Ligato saw Batcheller go white and close his eyes. He thought the captain was dying. They lifted him and ran. They set Batcheller down behind Gravel’s jeep, and Ker splinted his right leg with a shovel.
Meadows took advantage of covering fire to race into an Esso station at the roundabout. He found a city map on a wall inside and grabbed it.
Enemy soldiers could be seen moving across the road behind them, and, worried that they might close it off, Gravel ordered all the wounded to be put on one truck, and all of the dead on another. Bloody men torn to pieces, missing limbs, conscious or just barely conscious, were hastily loaded. Gunny Canley, who had a shrapnel wound to his face, arrived carrying Patrick Fraleigh, a private whom he had dragged to cover, shielding him partly with his own body. He went to work packing Fraleigh’s wounds, but despite his best efforts, the young man stopped breathing.
After making a U-turn, the two trucks made a run for it. When they barreled back through the gauntlet, the passengers who could still shoot fired on automatic.
Gravel and Meadows watched the two trucks disappear into the distance southward. They were in a bigger fight than they had anticipated. Checking the gas station map, they saw that the MACV compound was close. Up ahead were the first urban blocks of Hue. But in the distance they could also see many uniformed enemy soldiers. For all his time in Vietnam, Meadows had only rarely laid eyes on even a single NVA or VC fighter. Those he had seen looked ragged, poorly dressed and poorly armed. These were well-equipped and clearly had plenty of ammo because they were using it at a good clip. As the convoy started forward once more, the level of resistance stiffened.
The convoy was stuck. There was an enemy spotter and machine gun in the spire of a Catholic church to the west just raining fire down on them. Scattered off the road, Alpha and Golf companies did not dare remount the vehicles, but it was also too dangerous to stay where they were. One of the tanks slowly aimed its gun and took one shot, which removed the top of the spire.
LaMontagne, who recognized the increasingly urban streets and had been to the MACV compound before, recommended to Gravel that he be allowed to take two of the tanks and sprint ahead. They could bring back help.
A cheer went up inside the compound when LaMontagne and the tanks sped through the front gate. It was as if the cavalry had just ridden over the hill. But as he quickly explained to the compound’s commander, Adkisson, it was the rescuers who needed rescuing.
Coolican, Breth and Fred Drew, an Army lieutenant, commandeered trucks and with hastily recruited volunteers raced back down Highway 1 with LaMontagne, taking heavy fire as they went. It wasn’t far to where Gravel and Meadows and the remnants of Alpha and Golf were pinned down. The additional suppressing fire enabled the Marines to move again. The able-bodied heaved their dead and wounded aboard the vehicles and then climbed up themselves. On the short drive to the compound they saw many bodies to the west of the road, where they had been directing most of their fire. It suggested an almost inexhaustible number of enemy soldiers, since shooting from that direction had hardly slowed.
The convoy limped through the front gate of the compound, the shattered remains of the two convoys that had left Phu Bai hours earlier. Meanwhile, at Task Force X-Ray’s headquarters, the two trucks Gravel sent back were also arriving. Batcheller was off-loaded with the others at the base hospital and then lost consciousness.
Fraliegh, the Marine whom Canley had tried to rescue, was placed with the other dead outside the morgue, until an orderly happened by and the corpse spoke up. “Good afternoon, Marine,” Fraleigh said.
“We’ve got a live one!” the man screamed, and Fraleigh was hurried into surgery.
It was just past 3 p.m. The bloodied Marines of Alpha and Golf had seen more combat than any of them had ever before encountered in Vietnam. And their day wasn’t over.
[The intense fighting in Hue continued until the city was firmly in American and South Vietnamese control on Feb. 25 after the NVA had retreated.]
Mark Bowden is the author of 13 books, including New York Times best-seller Black Hawk Down.
First published in Vietnam magazine’s February 2018 issue.